How the greatness of Christine Sinclair made Olympic gold possible

James Sharman joined Sportsnet Central to discuss Canada's greatest moment in soccer history as they defeated Sweden to win gold, Christine Sinclair's legacy in Canadian sports, and Stephanie Labbé's clutch performance during penalty kicks.

It’s amazing how something so big and overblown and ridiculous in scale can be rendered so intimate and raw and personal.

Nothing to do with cauldrons being lit or flags being raised or massed dancers or grandiose fireworks displays. Instead, faces, words, gestures – human stuff on a human scale. That’s how these Olympics will linger in memory.

Perhaps it’s a by-product of being rubbed raw this past year and a half, or of becoming ever more comfortable by choice and necessity with making connections at a distance. There’s also no question that the absence of fans, of crowd noise, the sense that the events were playing out on empty sound stages, allowed us to see and hear what we might not otherwise have noticed.

Maggie Mac Neil squinting up at the scoreboard, minus her specs, and then finally focusing on the time and the placing and processing the fact that she had won a gold medal.

“Oh my God!” she said, and we all read her lips.

Andre De Grasse talking to his partner and kids after winning the 200 metre gold, with no white noise to get in the way.

“I’ll be home soon,” he said through the screen. “Have a good day.”

Then he looked up at the sky and said only to himself (and millions watching from afar): “I can’t believe it. Oh my God. I did it.”

Whether or not this has been Canada’s greatest Summer Games is hardly worth attempting to quantify, given the apples-and-oranges nature of medal counts and boycott years.

But it has been the most emotionally satisfying. That’s beyond argument.

And of course the capper was that match, that extra time, that shootout, that two hours plus of alternating agony and joy, capped off when 20-year-old Julia Grosso stepped up to the spot as though she’d done it 1,000 times before and coolly snapped home a penalty in the cavernous Yokohama Stadium, the same place where Brazil won the men’s World Cup in 2002.

The getting there in the gold medal match against Sweden — the getting there in this entire tournament — was a walk along the razor’s edge. Canada never made it look easy, and that goes all way back to the opening game against Japan when they surrendered a late goal and wound up with a disappointing draw.

The penalty shoot-out against Brazil in the quarterfinals was the difference between a medal and none. The penalty conversion against the Americans, exorcising so many demons, was the finest of lines in a match that certainly could have gone the other way.

And Sweden, with their captain walking to the spot, had the gold medal nearly in their grasp.

Write this script, and no one would believe it.

When Grosso’s decisive shot crossed the line, the screams and hoots echoed in the silence of the stadium. And in that delirious mob scene, the face we all searched for was Christine Sinclair’s.

The greatest testament to what she has meant to Canadian soccer may well be the fact that in the biggest victory of her career, she wasn’t her team’s best player on the night. At age 38, she couldn’t be. Keeper Stephanie Labbé took that honour in the end, but Jessie Fleming and Ashley Laurence and Kadeisha Buchanan and Vanessa Gilles and Desiree Scott – who was once one of the kids and is now one of the greybeards – all had more influence on the play. Sinclair’s most significant contribution was forcing the penalty, taken by Fleming, that tied the score in the second half.

In the 86th minute, with extra time and a shootout looming, coach Bev Priestman subbed out an exhausted Sinclair, which was the correct decision. And perhaps that’s the last time we will see her play for Canada.

If so, what a run, and what a finish.

As a teenager, Sinclair decided that the game she already loved would be her vocation when she watched the landmark 1999 Women’s World Cup, which took place in the United States. A year later — the year Grosso was born — she won her first cap for Canada in the Algarve Cup, and then played in the 2003 World Cup, again staged in the U.S. after SARS forced it out of China.

The women’s game was in a very different place in those days. Many of the world’s traditional football powers chose to keep all of their resources on the men’s side. This country was in some ways ahead of the curve — and produced some stellar talents like Charmaine Hooper — but it was Sinclair’s emergence as a fast, powerful scoring machine that shifted the conversation. That said, it would take a while for it to dawn on Canadians that this outwardly shy, intensely private woman was one of the greatest athletes we have ever produced.

There were several stops along the way — notably, the disastrous 2011 World Cup in Germany, where Canada finished dead last — when it felt like Sinclair’s best years, and the golden generation of players with which she was surrounded, had been wasted. But by reaching the podium in London in 2012 and Rio in 2016 with an evolving cast, those fears proved unfounded.

In Yokohama, those were Sinclair’s children out there — the same ones who picked her up after she missed in the Brazil shootout, and who refused to wilt when she was taken off.

Every one of them grew up knowing that the greatest female soccer player in the world could be a Canadian, that they could compete with anyone, that they could finally knock off the Americans after 20 years of futility, that they could and should aspire to Olympic gold.

All of that was there to see in their faces. And all of that was there to see in Christine Sinclair’s smile.

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